May 3 this year was marked last week as it is done every year as World Press Freedom Day. The theme for this year’s celebration was “Information As a Public Good.” Journalists and other stakeholders in the information dissemination business had the opportunity to examine the state of press freedom worldwide, the pressures and hazards faced by practitioners and how these can be managed or minimised for the good of the public. In the same week, a civil society organisation that is an active player in the matter of civic rights protection and defence, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), launched a research-based report on the media in Nigeria titled “Something to hide? Media freedom under siege in Nigeria.”
Several media have also spilled some ink on the state of the media in Nigeria. This column would like to shoehorn itself into that conversation by drawing the public’s attention to the forces that constitute an impediment to free and responsible journalism that can lead to the achievement of public good.
Since the return to democratic governance in 1999, a number of state actors at federal, state and local government levels have placed all kinds of roadblocks on the path of press freedom and journalists. As journalists file out to cover such difficult beats as campaigns and elections, public protests, community conflicts, terrorism and banditry as well as corruption they are harassed, beaten, arrested, detained or kidnapped or killed and their families are thrown into the abyss of grief. UNESCO says that, in 2020, 59 media workers were killed worldwide. Four of them were women.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, which is a faithful recorder of pressures on the press, says that over 1,400 journalists have been killed in the last three decades, while 274 journalists were imprisoned last year. This year, 66 journalists have already been declared missing all over the world.
In Nigeria, the picture is also grim. In January last year, a reporter of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), Mr. Maxwell Nashian, was kidnapped from his house in Adamawa State. He later died in the hospital after his release. On May 6 last year, another journalist with FRCN, Chinenye Iwuoha, was kidnapped in Umuahia, Abia State, while returning from work.
Three days later, a news blogger and proprietor of Naijalivetv.com, Mr. Mienpamo Saint, was abducted from his home at INEC Road in Kpansia, a suburb of Yenogoa, Bayelsa State, by masked gunmen. In the same month, on May 27, Mrs. Chinyere Okoye, assistant general manager, news and current affairs, at the NTA Channel 6, Aba, was abducted by unknown gunmen in front of her house at Obikabia Road in Aba, Abia State, while returning from work.
This year, there have already been three recorded incidents of journalists being kidnapped in Nigeria. On February 3, a Punch correspondent, Mr. Okechukwu Nnodim, was kidnapped by armed men who invaded his residence in the Arab Area of Kubwa, Abuja. Six days later, a reporter with NTA, Chidiebere Onye, was also kidnapped in Rivers State while returning from work.
The latest kidnap incident occurred on Tuesday last week in Adamawa State, where a news editor of the Adamawa Broadcasting Corporation, Mrs. Amra Ahmed, was plucked from her residence at 1am and taken away. The gunmen are asking for N50 million as ransom.
These abductions of journalists are capable of instilling fear into journalists and discouraging them from shining the spotlight on such issues as corruption, terrorism, banditry, malfeasance, etc.
In the SERAP report launched last week, it was stated that a civic tech platform that tracks attacks on journalists in Nigeria had reported that 36 Nigerian journalists were attacked between January and July 2019, while 30 of those attacks took place during the 2019 elections. It is worth noting that, while abductions and attacks might be the severest forms of pressure on journalists, there are other forms of intimidation that affect the freedom of the press. Such measures include arson on media premises, seizure of equipment such as computers, cameras and cell phones, imposition of obscenely obnoxious fines on some electronic media and arrest and detention of journalists on trumped-up charges with or without trial. Agba Jalingo, owner of a website called CrossRiverWatch, was accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Cross River State and kept in detention for a total of 179 days.
And what was the allegedly treasonable article he wrote? It was simply an article that asked the Governor of Cross River State to account for money voted for the establishment of a microfinance bank in Calabar. Does that constitute an attempt to overthrow the government? You might think that was probably the worst case of highhandedness by a state actor. No, it wasn’t. This case was bested by that of Mr. Jones Abiri, editor of the Weekly Source newspaper.
Abiri was accused of terrorism and kept in detention for two years without access to his family or lawyer. Even after the court threw the case out and ordered his release, he was rearrested and detained for a few more months before he was released on bail. The journalist eventually went to court to seek redress for the infringement of his human rights by the DSS. The court hammered the secret service organisation with a huge fine for damages.
But perhaps the most intolerant regulatory agency in the world is the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). The organisation is the official regulator of electronic broadcasting in Nigeria.
During the 2019 general election, the NBC imposed a fine of N500,000 on each of 45 broadcast stations that it said breached the code of conduct on election broadcast.
These 45 stations covered the six geopolitical zones. If 45 broadcast stations in all the six geopolitical zones were accused of breaching the code, then something must have been terribly wrong. It is either there was poor judgement on the part of the regulator or the code of conduct is irredeemably defective because it would be insane to conclude that all 45 stations could be wrong on the matter of how an election should be covered.
It is obvious that the NBC had become overbearing and had crossed from the sane territory of fair regulation into the bitter territory of intolerance.
The totality of all these pressures on the press from multilateral sources has placed Nigeria at number 120 out of 180 countries on the Annual World Press Freedom Index for year 2021. Last year, Nigeria was put at number 115, meaning that it has dropped by five ranks this year. This index, which is published by Reporters without Borders, has been published yearly since 2002 and is regarded as a fair assessment of the level of press freedom in the world.
As Nigeria struggles to tackle its intractable problems such as corruption, insecurity, terrorism, banditry, unemployment, poverty, political exclusion and secessionist campaigns, the civic space is more likely to shrink than to expand. When that happens, the private media and journalists will continue to be the targets of hard knocks by officialdom.
Already, all the media have been struggling to cope with the low performance of their organisations occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, a limping economy and the lack of creativity in income generation. This may affect their ability to operate optimally and with a large measure of independence.
The public media are not faring better either because their proprietors are currently going through financial difficulties of monumental proportions. They are, therefore, hamstrung and are unlikely to be able to reflect in their various media the full nine yards in news coverage. All media, private and public, are now wrestling with sorrow and need enormous public support, if they are to perform properly the onerous function of meeting the public’s right to know.
For now, the media remain a very endangered species from both internal and external forces.